The new school year is getting underway just as the nation is grappling with new national data confirming dramatic, pandemic-related declines in student learning. Even as educational leaders weigh strategies for addressing this achievement crisis, we also hear opinions that it is “impossible to ask kids to tackle difficult academic challenges” without first attending to their underlying emotional needs—a take that has been commonplace throughout the pandemic. “For many students, their mental and emotional health needs to be stabilized in order for learning to take place,” said one Pennsylvania teacher last year, reflecting this sentiment.
It is certainly true that the pandemic accelerated a mental health crisis for children and teens that was already apparent prior to spring 2020. It is a serious issue and schools—including Success Academy Charter Schools, of which I am CEO—have expanded mental health services to meet the needs of a greater number of struggling students.
At the same time, as we commence a school year in which educators must continue the intensive work of repairing the pandemic’s academic damage, I want to draw attention to the fact that engaging students in challenging academic learning is not in opposition to supporting their emotional wellness; on the contrary, it can play an important contributing role.
The truth is that, while nothing can replace supportive mental health services for children in crisis, there are tremendous opportunities to inculcate vital social and emotional skills through teaching and learning. In particular, resilience is strongly associated with mental health, and teachers are perfectly positioned to help their students build this abundantly fruitful habit of mind.
Resilience is the capacity to bounce back from adversity and challenges. Research consistently finds that children with higher degrees of resilience are less likely to suffer depression and anxiety. Studies also find that resilience isn’t static—individuals can become more resilient through interventions.
The classroom can be a locus of such interventions. Our goal at Success Academy is to cultivate our scholars as lifelong learners. Toward that end, children must take pleasure in learning—and real learning can be hard. It often involves failure and the courage to keep trying in the face of uncertainty. To take pleasure in learning, therefore, children must develop resilience, or “mental toughness.” For some children, this mindset comes easily, but for many, their natural response is to give up or simply go through the motions when things get hard. That’s normal, and our job as educators is to build children’s zest to persist through challenges.
Cultivating this mindset is therefore part of our core value system and integral to every aspect of our schools. It is not a separate social-emotional learning curriculum layered on top of an academic program or something we attend to before getting down to the business of teaching and learning. Rather, our educators work holistically to fully invest scholars in the joy of taking intellectual risks and pushing themselves to try their hardest, even when there is a possibility that they may fail. Within this framework, every class, every lesson, and every homework assignment becomes a mini-exercise in building resilience.
Of course, lessons and assignments cannot build resilience when they are simplistic and below grade level. Texts, problems, assignments, and assessments must challenge students and demand a deep level of engagement. An important way to build excitement to take on such challenging work is by using students’ work to drive learning. When scholars experience how errors in their own or peers’ work can give everyone greater clarity and understanding, they see that small failures can be a source of valuable information and a springboard for growth. As this insight takes hold, they become increasingly courageous about grappling with new and difficult concepts and problems—and, critically, they become willing and able to share when they need help.
This healthy mindset, cultivated in the classroom, spills over into the rest of our scholars’ lives. Having a safe space to try, fail, and try again, consistently experiencing success through effort and persistence, helps build a strong psychological foundation for meeting challenges outside the classroom. We have seen abundant evidence of this when our scholars have gone on to college. Many have been daunted when they first arrive, by being in the minority at a predominantly white college, by the workload, by being far away while their families face a crisis at home. But we have seen them face these challenges with resilience. Rather than falling into despair or indifference, they have taken active steps to address their challenges. They have made a commitment to regularly go to their professors’ office hours, joined clubs to build a sense of belonging, reached out to Success Academy’s alumni office to ask for help.
Engaging children in rigorous, student-led academic learning is never the answer to serious mental health challenges. But it is a mistake to believe that the best way to address the struggles that students encountered during the pandemic—illness, poverty, isolation, fear—is by denying them access to the struggles inherent in rigorous academic learning. On the contrary, when done in a supportive environment, this type of productive struggle can play a critical role in building the habits of mind that help children face life’s inevitable challenges with courage, optimism, and self-belief.